O'NEILL'S FIRST FAMILIES:
In his widely-regarded book Family, Drama, and American Dreams, Tom Scanlan argues that "From first plays to last, O'Neill made the domestic situation his primary subject" (85). It is difficult to quarrel with that statement. Whether or not we accept the thesis of Scanlan's book, there is little reason to doubt that "family plays" are crucial to the O'Neill canon. This seems especially obvious with the hindsight derived from the appearance of Long Day's Journey Into Night. It is equally clear from a consideration of the three papers which are to follow this one. Each of the three plays in question--Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day's Journey--has, at one time or another, been regarded as the capstone of O'Neill's work. Clearly, the American family was a subject of great interest to him and a subject which tapped his most fertile veins of creativity. So it may seem a bit surprising that at the very beginning of his career, O'Neill did not immediately start in by writing family plays. It was not until his fifth play, the one-act Warnings, begun in the fall of 1913, that he began to create his first, true family drama. Warnings is his first play to dramatize at length interactions between parents and children and between siblings.
I will return to Warnings momentarily; however, with that starting point firmly in mind, I would now like to glance back over O'Neill's first four plays, A Wife for a Life, The Web, Thirst, and Recklessness. None of these four quite qualifies as family drama; but in three of them, elements of family life are explicit factors. In the first and fourth, the role of the family is the same: an offstage set of parents force their daughter into a disastrous "marriage of convenience" for the young girl's economic good. Thus, in the very first reference to parents (or a family) in O'Neill's very first script--A Wife for a Life--we find evidence to support Scanlan's observation that "the family destroying the individual is the more usual dramatic subject for O'Neill" (88).
Such is not the case, however, in O'Neill's second play, The Web. Here, it is society and/or the state which destroys both the individual and the family. The Web almost qualifies as domestic drama, for the first part of the play concerns a sort of analogue of the nuclear family. The first scene presents the protagonist, Rose Thomas, interacting with her infant child; subsequently, Rose's "live-in" boyfriend Steve enters, and shortly we have a scene of domestic violence as Steve becomes furious with Rose and "hits her in the face with his fist, knocking her down" (O'Neill, "Lost," 41). Since Rose Thomas is a prostitute and Steve is her pimp, some may prefer not to consider The Web domestic drama, but the classification will prove useful later on. For now, the point to be made is that the family per se is not O'Neill's primary concern in this play. The Web is first and foremost a "social-problem play" on the then-topical matter of prostitution, a problem which O'Neill addresses from a rather anarchistic perspective in terms of society's destruction of individual freedom--in this case, Rose Thomas's lack of freedom to choose not to be a whore.
Three of O'Neill's first four plays, then, have definite relevance to any general consideration of his domestic drama. Thirst has no such interest; it does deal, however, with themes of racial conflict and madness which later in O'Neill's career would be strikingly conjoined with his passion for domestic drama in All God's Chillun Got Wings.
Which brings us back to Warnings. For those who have met O'Neill and his work primarily through Long Day's Journey, and who have been much taken by the autobiographical O'Neill, the configuration of the family in Warnings may also come as some surprise. The Knapps have four children. not two, and three of the four are girls. There is, in fact, a fifth child, manifest only via a baby's offstage cry, and a sixth child who never appears because he has grown up and left home. This family of six children may remind you of another six-sibling family in O'Neill--the idealized Millers of the brilliant nostalgic comedy Ah, Wilderness! The Millers have two grown sons away from home and only four of their children actually appear in the play. Reference to Ah, Wilderness! reminds us of O'Neill's fondness for large families (Gelb 81), a fondness engendered as much as anything by his exposure to the Rippin family with whom the O'Neills often boarded during their summers at the Monte Cristo cottage in New London. As a result, it is not particularly surprising to observe that O'Neill most likely began and certainly finished Warnings in the late fall of 1913, while he was living with the Rippins, recuperating from his tuberculosis (Törnqvist 258, n. 12). The Warnings configuration of three daughters and one son matches exactly the configuration of Rippin children O'Neill encountered while living with them (Sheaffer 261, 265). Thus, it would appear that O'Neill's first family was a product of his living arrangements at the lime. In fact, many details of the lives and personalities of all the Rippins find their way into O'Neill's first plays, most notably perhaps in Bread and Butter, O'Neill's first full-length play and his second true family play.
Bread and Butter, though deeply flawed at two key moments, is nevertheless overdue for its first recorded performance. The play is fascinating in several respects. But once again, the configuration of the family differs widely from O'Neill's own. Mr. and Mrs. Brown have five grown children, all of whom appear in the play; three sons this time, however, and only two daughters. From the biographical perspective, what is most intriguing about the Browns is how they do and do not reflect O'Neill's own home situation. The father and two of the brothers have definite parallels in James, Jamie, and Edmund Tyrone. The protagonist, John Brown, is in fact O'Neill's first fully-drawn "self-portrait." The initial description of John makes clear that he is in appearance an almost exact duplicate of O'Neill (O'Neill, "Children," 15). Moreover, although John is a painter, not a writer, his plan to persuade his father to send him to art school instead of law school is surprisingly similar to O'Neill's own situation at the time. In the play, completed in May of 1914 (Törnqvist 258), the father of John's fiancée convinces Mr. Brown that John deserves a chance to go to art school. In real life, little more than a month after he completed the play, O'Neill solicited the aid of playwright and critic Clayton Hamilton to help him persuade James O'Neill to send his younger son to "playwriting school"--that is, to Professor George Pierce Baker's famous English 47 course at Harvard. The plan worked, both in the play and in real life.
As remarkable as the parallels between John and O'Neill are, the foreshadowings of Jamie Tyrone are at least as striking. Glimpses of Jamie are actually seen in two characters. The first is John's irrepressible brother, Harry, who, just before his final exit from the play in Act I, offers this lament to his brother after borrowing a handful of cigarettes: "Stringency of the paternal money market, you know" (21). The other glimpse of Jamie appears in the guise of one of John's roommates at art school, Ted Nelson, who, after placing three glasses and a bottle of whiskey on the center table, says: "My lord, breakfast is served"; and then sings, "Ho, shun the flowing cup!" (54). The father in this play, Mr. Brown, a successful hardware merchant, is less remarkable as a sketch of James Tyrone, though he, too, is a self-made business success and does seem to bear a physical resemblance to James O'Neill in that he is "smooth-shaven, a trifle bald, [and] fifty-eight years old" (8). Perhaps what is most surprising, however, when the play is viewed from this perspective is that Mrs. Brown seems to have nothing in common with Mary Tyrone: she is a "meek," "tired-looking woman" (8) who keeps disappearing into the background and has virtually no effect on the central struggle between Mr. Brown and John. Equally uncharacteristic is the role O'Neill accords to John's sister Bessie. Although John's other sister, Mary, has the makings of one of O'Neill's typical female shrews, she is a minor figure in the play and disappears after Act I. By contrast, Bessie, who appears in all but one act, is (O'Neill tells us) "quite adorable" (14); an attractive and effervescent young woman of a type who seldom appears in O'Neill's subsequent work. More importantly, Bessie serves as the moral touchstone of the play, giving John her vocal and whole-hearted support in his efforts to follow his dream of being a great artist rather than follow his father's plans. As the character of Bessie may suggest, there is something about the imaginative breadth of Bread and Butter which is both pleasing and very different from the intense concentration of Long Day's Journey. This breadth is seen in the overall sprawl of the play across almost four years and three sets in the space of four acts heavily populated with fourteen characters. In this respect, Bread and Butter more closely resembles Ah, Wilderness! O'Neill's creative powers are equally in evidence in his ability to individuate each of his characters and to give each of the three sons plus the father a different style of speech. By the midpoint of Act 1, there are seven distinct and completely imagined characters on stage at the same time.
This moment--when O'Neill has all seven Browns on stage at once--is also fascinating from a different perspective. The group portrait provides the occasion for John to announce that he has proposed to his girl friend, Maud Steele, and she has accepted--an announcement that brings forth a shower of congratulations from the family. Properly staged, this moment can create as warm a picture of family togetherness as any in Ah, Wilderness! But the scene occurs in the first act of a play which will end in the fourth act pith Maud driving her husband off stage to kill himself. Thus, O'Neill's very first long play is a somewhat autobiographical family drama, set in a small New England town, and employing the very comic to tragic rhythm which is so characteristic of both A Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day's Journey. How different the shape of O'Neill's career and the history of American drama might have been if James O'Neill's friend, producer George Tyler, had read Bread and Butter when it was sent to him in the summer of 1914. Instead, Tyler concluded that James O'Neill was just being a typically uncritical proud father and never even opened the manuscript (Sheaffer 291).
In the same month of 1914 in which O'Neill completed Bread and Butter, he also completed his third family play, the one-act Abortion (Tornqvist 259). Here, although the wealthy Townsend family has only two children, O'Neill virtually transplanted Mr. and Mrs. Brown and Bessie and John. Like Mr. Brown, Mr. Townsend, "a tall, kindly old man of sixty or so with a quantity of white hair" (O'Neill, "Lost," 150), is another role James O'Neill could have played. There are, in fact,among O'Neill's first thirteen surviving plays, seven roles for principal male characters in their 50's and 60's. As often as the biographers have searched a few of these roles for hints about Eugene's views of his own father, it should be kept in mind that Eugene expressly created a role for James in his first play, A Wife for a Life (Alexander 182; Voelker), and during Eugene's first two years of playwriting he created six more such roles, all of which suggests that he never quite lost sight of the possibility that he might get his first play produced directly through his father's willingness to act in it.
To return to Abortion, the other three Townsends are equally apparent as transplanted Browns. Mrs. Townsend is not quite the nonentity Mrs. Brown is, but she, too, fades into the background after she exits and plays no direct role in the confrontation and reconciliation of father and son--the last, once again, a skewed portrait of O'Neill. This same family configuration of parents with two children--one son, and one daughter who is younger--appears in O'Neill's next domestic play, his second long play, Servitude. The major difference in Servitude is that it is the father, David Roylston, successful playwright and novelist, who is the Eugene O'Neill self-portrait.
Servitude was completed just before O'Neill left New London for Cambridge. Under Baker, O'Neill completed some five new plays, but only two--The Sniper, in one act, and The Personal Equation, in four--have survived, and both are of interest as treatments of the family. In The Sniper, the family is once again destroyed by social forces, in this case the outbreak of World War I and the Prussian invasion of Belgium. The family in The Sniper contains only one child, a son, who has been killed in the fighting before the play begins. His father, Rougon, a Belgian peasant, brings his dead son's body on stage at the curtain's rise. Subsequently, both the mother and the son's fiancée are killed off stage, caught. in the crossfire of opposing armies. The Sniper, like The Web, is not a true family play; O'Neill's primary concerns are to protest the war, warmongering human nature which makes war, and the God who has created warmongering humankind. But in the context of its predecessors, The Sniper. in its complete devastation of the nuclear family, marks, symbolically at least, a transformation in O'Neill's concern with family drama in his first plays.
The visual focus on a father-son relationship which characterizes The Sniper is carried over explicitly and exclusively into The Personal Equation, O'Neill's third surviving long play. Here the family interest is in the relationship between Thomas Perkins, Sr., a widower, and his only child, Tom, Jr., a member of the radical International Workers party, who is recruited to foment a seamen's strike by dynamiting the engines of a ship on which his father is the Second Engineer.
The Personal Equation is undoubtedly the worst long play O'Neill ever wrote; the plot is simply preposterous. But in it, O'Neill was making his most ambitious effort at character creation to date. He was attempting to create three principal characters, each of which is torn by an inner conflict; and in the second scene of Act III, in the confrontation in the engine room between a son bent on destroying his father's machines, which the old man dearly loves, and a father attempting to defend them with a revolver, O'Neill created a situation which, properly led up to, could have culminated in profound tragedy. But O'Neill himself does not have to shoulder all the blame for the failure; his creaky plot, after all, was approved by Professor Baker in scenario before O'Neill began to write the play (Sheaffer 295).
Despite these shortcomings, The Personal Equation is of interest because of O'Neill's efforts at characterization and the play's family themes. Of the three principal characters, Tom, Jr., is the focal point and the most complexly motivated. As a member of the radical International Workers, Tom is in open conflict with his father, who is a loyal employee of the steamship company against which the International Workers hope to foment a strike. Young Tom is quite willing to accept this circumstance because he is in open rebellion against his father. whom he deeply resents for placing his son in a series of boarding schools in order to go to sea. In Tom Perkins, Sr., then, we see a typical conflict in O'Neill's family plays of this period: the conflict between the father's occupation and the demands of his family. This conflict is also central to the tragic dilemma of James Knapp in Warnings, a ship's telegrapher faced with impending deafness. He is torn between the economic demands of his poor working-class family and his obligation as a crew member to do the right thing--quit his job. Similarly, David Roylston in Servitude considers his family life to be satisfactory to the extent that it does not interfere with his work as a novelist and playwright. Likewise, John Brown in Bread and Butter is torn between his desire to be a serious painter and the wishes of both his father and his fiancée that he return home, settle down, earn a living, and raise his own family. Throughout this series of early family plays, in the terms employed by Tom Scanlan, the traditional demands of the "family of security" (27ff) are seen as an impediment to the individual male's need to define himself through his work.
In the case of Young Tom of The Personal Equation, his father's choice, leading to his self-definition and his abandonment of his son, is clearly intended by O'Neill to explain the son's resentment. O'Neill depends on the audience's awareness that the absence of a supportive home life is sufficient to scar the deprived child quite deeply. Which is not to say that Tom does not still love his father. Tom does, deep down, but he is not conscious of this. Consciously, Tom believes he simply hates his father.
In his first plays, then, O'Neill's portraits of the family are repeatedly concerned with two themes. On the one hand, the family as a whole is pitted against society; outside social forces destroy the family in The Web, Abortion, The Sniper and also, to a degree, in Warnings, where symbolically, James Knapp must choose between the interests of his family and those of society, microcosmically symbolized by the passengers on Knapp's ship. O'Neill's second recurrent theme concerns the male who is destroyed by the demands of the nuclear family--a central them in Warnings and Bread and Butter. The latter, however, is especially notable because it consciously attacks the restrictive demands of Scanlan's "family of security" and offers as an explicit alternative the family model which Scanlan has termed the "family of freedom" (27ff). These alternatives are made explicit in the following exchange between Mr. Brown and his son John,
This exchange, I suspect, is one which still today a good many parents ought to hear.
One observation remains regarding O'Neill's first family plays when they are looked at collectively. Beginning with The Web, with its slum environment of pimps and whores, O'Neill steadily worked his way up the American economic class structure. The milieu of Warnings is clearly working-class or the working poor, always one step ahead of the bill collector. Bread and Butter is just as clearly set among the comfortable middle class. Finally, Abortion occurs in the environment of wealth and social privilege. In the slums of The Web, the family is virtually in disintegration; Rose and Steve are not married, he may not be the father of her child, and he beats her up. Among the working poor of Warnings, the threat of poverty is seen to drive a wedge between husband and wife, but their clashes are verbal, not physical. In the middle-class living room of Bread and Butter, the husband and wife do not fight at all, but the parents and children do. Finally, in the wealthy world of the Townsends in Abortion, not only do the parents not fight, but the father and son disagree only about means, not about ends. Both share the conviction that the family honor must be preserved. It is this shared conviction, in part, which drives the son to suicide at play's end when he realizes that, despite his best efforts, the illegal operation he has funded for his working-class girl friend will become public knowledge and hence ruin his family's reputation. At the least, a clear, if simplified, sociology of the family emerges when we examine O'Neill's first plays collectively, and a richer variety of alternatives presents itself to the student of family drama than might be expected.
--Paul D. Voelker
Alexander, Doris. The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962.
Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill, enlg. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
O'Neill, Eugene. "Children of the Sea" and Three Other Unpublished Plays, ed. Jennifer McCabe Atkinson. Washington. D.C.: NCR / Microcard Editions, 1972.
O'Neill, Eugene. Ten "Lost" Plays. New York: Random House. 1964.
Scanlan, Tom. Family, Drama, and American Dreams. Contributions in American Studies 35. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1978.
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
Tornqvist, Egil. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-naturalistic Technique. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.
Voelker, Paul. "Biography, Autobiography and Artistry in A Wife for a Life." Paper delivered at the international conference on "Eugene O'Neill--the Early Years," Suffolk University, Boston, MA, 22 March 1984.
*A paper delivered (as were the three that follow it in this issue) at the session on "Games People Play: Family Relationships in O'Neill" at the Northeast Modern Language Association Convention in Boston on April 3, 1987.
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